Unknown No Longer Documents
The following blog was written by Asya Simons who has been interning with the web and digital resources department at the VHS this summer. This is the first of several entries that she has written about her experience working on Unknown No Longer: A Database of Virginia Slave Names, which launches in September 2011.
~Meg M. Eastman, digital collections manager
Periodically the Virginia Historical Society will post content created by guest writers. The opinions expressed are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Virginia Historical Society, its members, or its staff. The Virginia Historical Society encourages discussion; however, we reserve the right to remove posts that are offensive, threatening, or insulting.
The Virginia Historical Society is home to an extensive collection of strange and unique documents. Throughout my internship this past summer, I had the opportunity to work hands-on with many documents as part of the Unknown No Longer database project. Often, days would pass in which I would photograph only a series of letters or wills or bonds, with nothing to distinguish one from the next. However, every once in a while I would come across a document that made me stop to examine it closer.
One of the oldest documents I worked with was a 1739 deed from Spotsylvania County, Virginia, which records the sale of “one Negro Woman” to James Davis. What interested me about this document was not the information about the slave or her owners but the seal accompanying the signature on the deed. When I first handled the document, I pointed it out to my supervisor, who told me that such seals often crumbled away long before coming to the VHS, making it a rare find, especially after more than 250 years. The seal, made by pressing an item into melted wax, depicts what appears to be a lion over the initials J. C. [Joseph Carter]. I had heard about such seals before—even seen packages at Williamsburg and Jamestown with which you could make your own—but it had never really interested me. I guess I never thought about what they were for, or what they represented, but now I can’t wait to buy one of those kits. I can only imagine what my cousins will think when their birthday cards have a seal on the inside instead of my signature!
I had always known that Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, was a slaveowner. During my internship, I worked with photocopies of documents from Jefferson’s personal collection at Monticello, which pertained to his slaves. The first of these, an 1814 deed, left four of Jefferson’s slaves to his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. The slaves in this deed were identified by their first name and the name of their mother. Reading this, I realized that although the document holds no information on the ages of these slaves, they were likely eighteen years old or younger. This was not uncommon in the documents I saw; parents and children were often separated without regard to age. I just finished my first year of college and had a hard time being away from my mom at eighteen. The idea of being forced to leave my parents while knowing I would probably never see them again is almost more than I can handle.
On December 15, 1863, in the middle of the American Civil War, Addison Cravens enlisted in the United States Army, bound to service for a maximum of three years at the discretion of his superiors. The enlistment form was filled out and
signed on Cravens’s behalf by Dr. John Hayes, Jr., who also conducted the medical examination. The only description of Cravens identifies him as a soldier with “Black eyes, Black hair, Dark complexion.” Because he was born in Tazewell County, Virginia, around 1819, there is a good chance that Cravens spent a good chunk of his life up to this point enslaved, and I can only guess at his motivations for joining the army.
These documents offer a picture of a time I can hardly imagine. Although the lives of millions of slaves are now reduced to a passing mention in a letter or a will, the documents that stood out help remind me that each name represents an entire life full of pain and joy, nightmares and dreams. I can’t even imagine how many other documents just like these have disappeared. At the time, they probably weren’t unique at all. Now, however, they are invaluable. They are the documents I tell my friends about, the ones I re-read in my free time, and they are the ones that make history come alive.